Even though we’re still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, we’re definitely far from where we started. People are already headed off on summer vacations and planning Fourth of July parties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has acknowledged that “as we head into summer, many people are at much lower risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death” from the coronavirus. That’s thanks in large part to increased immunity through vaccines and previous COVID infections. But with cases still on the rise, it’s important to be aware of what exactly your level of protection is.
A June 15 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at the protection previous infection and vaccination have against symptomatic Omicron infections by studying COVID cases in Qatar from Dec. 2021 through Feb. 2022. According to the study, having immunity from a previous infection alone was just 46.1 percent effective against the initial Omicron subvariant, BA.2.
“It’s definitely much, much safer to get vaccinated than to get infected,” Jeffrey Klausner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times. “The vaccine is only presenting a small piece of the virus. The whole virus, if you get infected, is going to spread throughout the body, it’s going to cause different symptoms in different body parts and increase your risk for long COVID or a prolonged duration of illness.”
But even being vaccinated at this point might not be enough if you haven’t been keeping up with your shots. The study also reported that the effectiveness of two doses of the mRNA Pfizer vaccine was practically nonexistent, and the least protective out of any combination of immunity from vaccination and prior infection. In comparison, three doses of Pfizer were 52.2 percent effective, while three shots and a previous infection was 77.3 percent effective against symptomatic BA.2 infection.
“Two-dose vaccination and no previous infection had negligible effectiveness against BA.1 and BA.2,” the researchers explained in the study. According to the CDC, while more than 66 percent of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated so far, less than 50 percent of these individuals have gotten a booster shot.
It’s far from hopeless, however. According to the study, those without a booster might still be somewhat protected from a symptomatic Omicron case if they’ve already been infected with the virus. Two doses and a prior infection was 55.1 percent effective, the researchers found. And per the CDC, at least 60 percent of the entire U.S. population is estimated to have already been infected with COVID as of Feb. 2022.
“COVID-19 is going to stay with us essentially forever. It’s not really going to disappear. But the question will be, will we be able to live with it somehow?” Laith Jamal Abu-Raddad, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar and a co-author of the study, told the Los Angeles Times. “And the initial results we are getting are actually very encouraging.”
According to Abu-Raddad, it’s clear from the study that “immune evasion is so much higher” with Omicron, as it “essentially a new virus.” We’ve clearly come a long way since initial clinical trials that showed the COVID vaccines were 94 to 95 percent effective at preventing mild illness from the coronavirus.
“However, and I think this is really the important part: The immunity against severe COVID-19 was really very much preserved,” Raddad said. All combinations of protection from vaccination and prior infection were more than 70 percent effective against COVID hospitalization or death, according to the study.
“Getting COVID right now—if you’re vaccinated up and you’re reasonably healthy—is more of a nuisance than it is a life-threatening event for most people. It’s a very different disease from two years ago, when we had a largely non-immune human population, and a virus that was going at you for the first time,” Robert Schooley, MD, an infectious disease specialist at University of California San Diego who was not involved in the study, explained to the Los Angles Times. “Now we have a virus that many of us have either seen through vaccination, or through infection, or a combination of both. The playing field is much more level.”